Sunday, January 8, 2012

Imagine All (Imaginal) the Butterflies

a.k.a. In Praise of Reptiles

“Why do I feel that the more I ‘wake up’ the more dead I feel?” lamented a dear friend over the holidays. He, like so many others is realizing that the great Adam Smith consumption of the human soul – exchanging passionate, purposeful engagement for a paltry salaried existence as a consumable unit of finite production – is bankrupt. And, along with the disillusioned hordes of similarly trafficked, transacted lives, he was struggling with the seduction of the post-modern puff-pastry spirituality which celebrates the birthing of a new humanity with rhinestone encrusted rouge optic consciousness. This oily elixir can be purchased by attending just the right number of over-priced weekend retreats where purveyors of positivism piously promote panaceas for the pernicious proclivities of the pedestrian populace. Like Epaon inspired penances in 517 (later laundered in the fourth Lateran Council), this vacuous promise of a post-enlightened effervescence seems, all too often, to smack into a very different reality. Namely, the more aware, awake and turquoise you become, the more dizzyingly seasick you feel.

Over the course of the last several months, I’ve been intrigued by the frequency with which I’ve encountered the Deepak Chopra credited “Caterpillar Effect”. In glorious simplicity, this metaphor of the potential for humanity goes something like this…

The caterpillar eats ravenously and it starts to ‘die’… then some cells (creative “imaginal cells”) imagine a new future … they do some ninja moves on immune cells in a primordial soup inside the carcass of the caterpillar … they tag team into making a beautiful butterfly and, viola, flight!

You can hear the extended play story here. You see, if just enough creative imaginal cells get together, the metaphor implies, we’ll have a new emergent, metamorphic experience on Earth. And, the illusion invites, there’s something aspirationally beautiful about this experience. You know, it’s a butterfly.

Which got me thinking; “I wonder how a post-modern guru has been credited with this phenomenon and why so many people think that butterflies are a good metaphor for the next phase of humanity?” So, like I do, I tried to find out what metamorphic biologist unleashed this timely narrative which has become the transcendent ideal of New Agers, Birthers, and Enlighten-nexters. Turns out, we can thank Chester I. Bliss (damn, who would have thought we could have had such a perfectly apropos last name?) who, in 1926 unleashed Deepak’s Imaginal Imaginarium in a paper entitled “Temperature Characteristics for Prepupal Development in Drosophila Melanogaster,” published in the Journal of General Physiology. Oops! Not very recent. Not very with it. And, hold on, isn’t Drosophila Melanogaster the fruit fly? Why, yes it is. And Bliss cited the original work on imaginal disks studied in metaphorically less suitable bugs like the blow fly and the apple maggot. I wonder how throngs of enlightenment seekers would ooh and aah if they’d hear their transformation heralded as blow flies and apple maggots?

Now we can all chuckle about this little selectivity in our speciation of transcendent metaphors and pass it off as of little consequence. But that’s before you take into account my friend and the thousands like him who, having gorged themselves on the leafy foliage of a system that rewards gluttonous consumption, pupate into a nutritious gooey ooze and imagine waking up to beautiful wings warming in the sunlight ready to waft freely on the lilting breezes in a post euphoric reward for having transmografied. Imagine all the people… yes, go ahead and hum the song, … waking up to find no wings, no breeze, and overcast skies. Imagine finding out that when you awaken, you apprehend the cost of your unconsidered consumption. Imagine finding out that your monetary system – the same money that you paid the enlightened expert at your retreat – has led to the enslavement of a humanity you didn’t recognize before. Imagine finding out that the minerals and energy that you use are costing the lives of thousands who are murdered and displaced by corporations who feed your 401(k).

Might I propose, a more mundane, possibly more appropriate metaphor more aptly aligned with the consciousness that our species evidences on a far more reliable basis? And for this proposal, might I remind you that in every culture that has perpetually inhabited their homeland for over 5 millenia, it is the reptile – turtles, crocodiles, and serpents – that are the metaphor for spiritual source and transformation. These animals, far more like the typical experience of human awakening don’t molder into a soup only to emerge in a glorious, fragile butterfly. No, when the skin that served one phase of their existence no long serves its purpose, they molt. They scrape and slough against rocks and obstacles breaking loose the flaking, dead encrustations that keep them from moving into life with the flexibility and dynamism they need and, when they’ve removed the last old dead skin, they’re a more beautiful, fresh version of themselves – just improved.

Let’s turn the 2,000 years of anti-serpent mythology on its head and start embracing the wisdom of the ancients. Last time I check, National Geographic has some amazing pictures of lizards eating butterflies… but that’s another blog post.


  1. nice touch as always!
    sure glad i awoke from delta and morphed to beta state one day in 2006 to hear the 'house of cards' talk!!!cheers

    also waited with keen senses for the tipping talk albeit in a more sedate chair as opposed to a running machine

    thoroughly enjoying 'm-cams' 'not really heard it in that way before' insight which transcends and includes all the 'never before' mantra's

  2. Metaphors are powerful stuff. My friends, Norie Huddle and evolutionary biologist, Elisabet Sahtouris have both championed the butterfly metaphor, for over a decade. The butterfly metaphor, if you look into it deeply also involves struggle. You can't help a butterfly to emerge- they have to do the work themselves or they cannot fly or survive. I think there is room for more than one metaphor. Transformation does require not just a change of consciousness, but a change in all of our systems. It is a messy process, but I see it all around us. You and I are part of it, and maybe we feel it most keenly - the resistance to "information" so deeply perpetuated by cultural myths that there is vehement denial to the shadow side of our human existence and institutions.

  3. With Carol's mention of 'resistance to information' I've decided to post last night's ramble of widening tangents, a response as unresolved as the state of this world. By the time word of the Solomon Island earthquake reached me I was too far afield to tie it all back together...

    ...on that note... Safe, happy travels to you & yours! David.

    Apparently some folks want the wings without the serpent. In moving away from the profound inconvenience of genuinely collective transformation, by the many ways we isolate private interest, assuming to de-link other's plights from ours, any choice that pits transcendence against immanence is a straw man in a building gale.

    If the function of our neo-reptilian brain, the foundation supporting humanity's emotional and social responses, remains our momentary navigation toward or away from stimuli / information, then that ancient embodied aspect of us is indeed the battleground on which we wage the quality of our survival.

    I first heard the Imaginal Cell metaphor from Barbara Marx Hubbard, in 2007, here in Santa Fe. But it's a weekend with Barbara long before that which calls to mind a concern you champion, the plight of the land and people in PNG.

    Flashback: Groundhog Day, 1984, (only figuratively referencing the movie and the book) Barbara announces her candidacy for the American Vice Presidency, in Lawrence, Kansas. There, that morning, I had breakfast with Willis Harman, who mentioned his consulting work done for Champion Paper (acquired since by International Paper). Willis was still president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, who, all these years later, hosts Dr. Chopra.

    From the wikipedia article on Humanistic Capitalism, "...In Willis Harman's seminal paper 'Humanistic Capitalism: Another Alternative" (Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 1974) he writes '...corporations [must] assume an active responsibility for creating a healthy society and a habitable planet—not as a gesture to improve corporate image or as a moralistically undertaken responsibility, but because it is the only reasonable long-run interpretation of 'good business.' In the end, good business policy must become one with good social policy."

    Another proponent of Humanistic Capitalism, Ira Rohter, wrote,
    “Pulptree plantations have nothing to do with sustainable forestry, despite a recent propaganda smokescreen by State officials. The leasing of thousands of acres... will NOT improve the environment or create many jobs, NOT result in the building of lumber mills, or processing plants and retail outlets and craft markets and family farms and economically independent and empowered citizens. Contrariwise, wherever these industrial plantations have been established — in Asia, the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and Africa – they have created major environmental, health, economic, and social problems.” [from:]

    The only plumed serpent I'm expecting this year is some integration of ancient wisdom with modern imperative. Just as all the aviary species are descended directly from post-cataclysmic dinosaurs, the presence of origins is destiny.

    (There's a related blog on realism this week, by Vanessa Fisher: )

  4. Our metaphoric selection is so vital - an oversight frequently visiting well-intentioned advocates for change. Evoking one dimension can bring with it the unintended consequences of many undesirable corollaries - made worse by cultural divides. When dealing with communities in the Pacific who described their 'conversion' to Christianity, for example, I remember the elders who said, "What could we object to? The Catholic God eats his son every Sunday just like our chiefs used to do with each others children." Our obsession with DEEP cultural engagement in the Heritable Innovation Trust and Integral Accounting programs specifically seek to understand community suitable expressions rather than trying to connect only to entirely miscommunicate.

    While I'm not opposed to metaphor, I would simply invite a more in-depth field effect review of them - in multiple cultural contexts - before calling humanity into something that may very well resemble colonial small pox... (and I do mean to imply all the dimensions of that metaphor for those who are wondering).

    And while you're contemplating this, make sure you read - and then advise your 401(k) to divest interest in Rio Tinto.

  5. Hello, David:
    As Carol Brouillet said, I also thinks that metaphors are powerful stuff. The problem I see when using metaphors is, as it is usually said, confusing the map with the territory, I mean, taking the metaphor as reality, not its representation or symbol. Many times I have seen using a metaphor as simple words, without any meaning expressed. As a close example, where I work, I usually hear people talk about spirituality, mindfulness, compassion,etc, but I see that in their action in everyday life there is a complete lack of all those "things" they are talking about. Respecting what kind of metaphor is more proper, the butterfly or the lizard, well, what I always look for is the meaning of the words, what is behind. In my opinion, I consider both metaphors quite valid as each of us has to go through the proccess of transformation if we want to see any real change, and that proccess is quite different depending on the person, their personalities traits, culture, context,etc. What really matters for me is what is the outcome after the proccess, what person is the one is emerging after that and if there is integrity and authenticity, I mean, real transformation. If not, any methaphor is just that, empty words.
    Another point I think is important is what we are talking about when using a metaphor. Using metaphor as part of a narrative of a culture, or just as a symbol of a proccess in normal conversation as in the case of the butterfly metaphor.
    Anyway, good post and interesting conversation.
    Warm regards.

  6. Beautiful comment and deeply resonant with Christine McDougall's comments on this post on Facebook. The real challenge with metaphors is when they are used to set emotional expectations of an deterministic outcome - when you feel more grounded that prone to flight, for example - and in so doing doubt the entire process. It is vital that we understand the epiphany that is possible and the pathology that attends the indiscriminate use (and abuse) of metaphors.

  7. Thank you for this post. I quite enjoyed it. Being a non native English speaker, it is sometimes hard to follow some of your posts but this one quite hit me. The butterfly metaphor did impact my life at some point, it was useful as the metaphors that came after, and keep coming in life to replace it.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave